DEEP CREEK, New Zealand — We were right in the middle of a roaring set of rapids when the raft flipped. We had pulled ashore half an hour earlier to scout the series of rapids that the New Zealanders had quaintly named Mother.
From a cliff 40 feet above the Shotover River we had seen that the origin of the name was not affectionate. Mother is a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids. The guidebook describes Class 5 as follows:
"Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids following each other, almost without interruption. River bed extremely obstructed, big drops, violent current, steep gradient."
Class 6 is "Unrunnable." Looking down from above I thought that Mother fit the description of Class 5 perfectly. I also thought that we were all too young to die but that there was no way out but downriver.
Down From the Alps
The Shotover River flows for 40 miles from the high peaks of New Zealand's Southern Alps, near the South Island city of Queenstown. The rafting season on the Shotover extends from the spring snowmelt in mid-October through the end of summer in March. The best rafting is between November and January when the water is high.
We arrived in Queenstown in late February at the height of the New Zealand summer. The city, one of the world's most beautiful resort towns, is at the base of the Alps alongside the crystal-clear water of 50-mile-long Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown is a good base for exploring the southern mountains and the west coast fiords such as Milford Sound. Accommodations are plentiful except during mid-summer from late November through February. During this period it would be wise to make reservations.
Six companies run trips on nearby rivers and offer a wide selection in terms of trip length and difficulty. The Lower Shotover trip is popular because it packs a lot of excitement into a beautiful five-hour float. The cost varies from N.Z.$50 to N.Z.$60 (U.S.$30-$36).
A van from Skippers Canyon River Expeditions picked up nine of us in the center of Queenstown, towing a trailer with the rafts in it. The 20-mile drive to the put-in was a thrill as we climbed high into the mountains to a narrow gravel road that descended sharply into Skippers Canyon. The thousand-foot drop-off at one side provided spectacular sightseeing for those of us with our eyes open.
A Chance to Talk
On the drive in we had a chance to talk to our head boatman, Bob Huffman of Knoxville, Tenn., and his assistant, Ben Griffiths of Queenstown. Bob was a warm, down-home kind of a guy working his fourth rafting season in New Zealand. Ben was a skilled local rafting guide with a healthy respect for this river.
The road descended steeply to the river and our put-in at Deep Creek. They provided us with sleeveless wet suits, life jackets and rafting helmets. Bob gave us a safety talk; the Shotover is a fast, powerful river even in late summer and water safety is taken very seriously.
We climbed into our two rafts and pushed off into the current. My friend Susan and I shared a raft with a friendly young couple from Australia. Ben sat in the stern as our rudder man. He called out commands as we practiced turns and paddled in unison.
After a few small rapids we pulled together as a team and had a chance to relax and look around. The river had etched its way through layers of gray shale at the bottom of the steep canyon. The valley's golden grasses and green trees made it look much like that of California's Mother Lode country. Gold was discovered here in the late 1800s. Downriver we passed a large, active gold dredge processing gravel alongside the river.
The water was emerald green with very little silt and, like most snow-fed rivers, quite cool. The mountain sky was a rich royal blue, and the intense sunlight combined with paddling kept us warm.
The first big rapid was called Rock Garden, an obstacle course of boulders followed by a four-foot waterfall. We navigated past the rocks and slipped over the fall, only to get caught in a "retentive." That's when the water at the base of the fall surges up to the surface and then back upstream.
The fall poured directly into the raft, filling it quickly. We did a high-side drill, leaping to the side of the raft opposite the waterfall to try to free it. The raft responded by reversing ends but refused to release.
Just as we wondered if we would spend the next two weeks caught in the fall, Bob's raft came along at full steam and knocked us out of the hole and slipped through without being caught. Using large plastic buckets, we bailed out the cold water and thanked Ben for making us wear our wet suits.
The river is a good mix of calm and white water. We warmed ourselves in the sun as we drifted past beautifully polished rock formations. The roar of white water ahead broke the reverie and got the adrenaline pumping again.
We careened over boulders and threaded the Needle, a narrow gap between two large rocks. Drifting quietly again, we watched birds soaring in the thermals high above the canyon walls.